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Mr. William Cash (Stone): Level crossings on public highways are causing my constituents serious problems. There is one in Hixon, three in Stone, one in Barlaston and another at Blythe bridge. There is also a level crossing on a private road at Wedgwood. Each has its own characteristics, but there are overall serious safety issues, particularly in the light of the proposed high-speed trains that will travel at 125 mph on the west coast main line. Serious traffic congestion problems are also causing my constituents enormous inconvenience. I am informed that in 1997, Railtrack confirmed to the highways committee of Staffordshire county council that it intended to remove all level crossings on the north Staffordshire branch of the west coast main line. That is the best solution. In late 1998, Railtrack still wanted to remove crossings wherever possible but asked the county council to investigate other options. The Health and Safety Executive requires the upgrading of all crossings to manual operation, with full-width barriers monitored by closed circuit television.
I shall give details of the crossings involved. There is an automatic half-barrier at Hixon, which was the scene of a major rail disaster in 1967; there have been two accidents in the past 18 months, with collisions between trains and cars, one of which was fatal. I am glad that Railtrack, in conjunction with the county council, has decided to provide a £2 million bridge for pedestrians and vehicles. That is an important precedent. There is an automatic half-barrier at Aston-by-Stone which raises serious safety concerns, particularly for children and local residents. It is adjacent to a major housing estate of 700 houses. The crossing at Church lane lies on the only access point to the local housing estate and the barriers fail frequently, cutting off the estate--and access for emergency services. The crossing at Meaford is manually controlled from an adjacent signal box. The one at Barlaston cuts the village in two, causing heavy traffic delays and congestion. The one at Wedgwood is normally closed outside the working day. At Blythe bridge, the crossing system fails periodically and repair staff from Nottingham can, I am told, take up to two hours to arrive. There should be a bridge or underpass at Aston-by-Stone and an alternative route provided at Church lane. Meaford crossing requires at least a traffic management scheme and, if possible, an alternative route. Further analysis is needed at Barlaston, with the option of bridges or other routes; in the short term, closed circuit television systems must be provided immediately.
I am grateful for the representations that I have received from Staffordshire county council, Stone town council and Railtrack. I have also had replies from Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator and Sir Alastair Morton of the Strategic Rail Authority but as yet no reply to my letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. All the proposed improvements cost money. Excepting the bridge at Hixon, which is going ahead at a cost of £2 million, the county council has estimated that the bridge at Aston-by-Stone would cost £3.5 million, the one at Church lane £1 million and at Barlaston £2.5 million. That is a total of around £8.7 million.
Yesterday I took part in the debate on the special grant report, which supports local authority private finance initiative schemes, including that of Staffordshire county council, one of the list of 74 authorities. The Under-Secretary for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, by whom I mean the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), who responded to the debate in Committee yesterday, said that approximately £8 billion is being provided in credits, the maximum amount of grant in any one case being £160 million. I asked the Under-Secretary to confirm in principle that the special grant could be made available to Staffordshire county council to fund the closure and the radical solutions needed to deal with all the level crossings in my constituency, given the safety and traffic congestion problems. I doubt whether many constituencies have as many as eight level crossings in such a confined area, a situation crying out for special treatment. Indeed, road schemes, bridges and tunnels are all specifically mentioned in the nightmarishly complicated, explanatory notes relating to the private finance initiative. The Under-Secretary is investigating the matter and will write to me about it.
We are about to hear in the Budget speech about the massive war chest of billions and billions of pounds that the Government hold. That has been generated by increased taxation, some of which has fallen on my constituents. I therefore urge the Government to provide the necessary money for their safety and convenience. Where trains travel at 125 mph, there is a general rule that crossings should be closed--a point that was confirmed to me by the Rail Regulator. That is why, in 1997, Railtrack proposed to the highways committee that all the crossings should be closed.
There should not be an ultra vires problem with the PFI route, because once the bridge, tunnel or other route had been provided, the railway would continue unaffected, and the special grant procedure would apply to the provision of the new facility standing on its own. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary said that if, having investigated the matter, she found that a problem was caused by a railway crossing with a railway running one way and a road running the other, that would be a potentially hybrid situation that could present legal obstacles to providing the money by special grant. My answer to that--which is a reasonably good one, given that I have specialised in ultra vires problems for some time--is that once the crossing and apparatus had been removed and the bridge provided, what would have been provided in terms of PFI would be a new facility, the bridge, owned by the county council and connected with the highway on both sides. The problem of the involvement of the railway would thus be eliminated. The railway would still be there, but it would go under the bridge, which would become vested in the county council as part of the local highway.
It is essential to bear in mind the fact that the county council or Stafford borough council could fund schemes themselves. However, I have a written reply dated 27 February from the Under-Secretary for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), which gives the figures for levels of spending on highways per head of population in Staffordshire compared with other counties. It reveals that, for 2000-01, Staffordshire has, by a massive margin, the lowest level of capital
I have been in detailed communication, in correspondence and conversation, with the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor. He has told me in writing that the Strategic Rail Authority could include the level crossings in the SRA's incremental output statement programme. I wrote to Sir Alastair Morton, and received a reply yesterday in which he stated that the local authorities, including the Labour county council, have not been in contact with the Strategic Rail Authority about improving the level crossings. I regard that as extraordinary and disgraceful, because improvements for level crossings are primarily a matter for the local highways authority and for Railtrack.
If Railtrack is already funded for these level crossing works, I have powers of enforcement under the Railways Act 1993, sections 16A-I (as inserted by section 223 of the Transport Act 2000) and section 55. If it is not, and the access charges and network grants which the company is to receive in the next five years do not finance these improvements, it is of course open to anyone else to provide the necessary funding."
Cost must be weighed against safety and convenience. The Labour Government, the Labour county council and the Labour borough council can combine with Railtrack to solve the funding problem, but only if they have the will to help my constituents by tapping into the monumental sums at the Chancellor's disposal on this Budget day. There is no excuse for inaction, so if the normal financial channels are not available because the county council has inadequately funded the highways, and if Railtrack is reluctant, why not use the special grants under the private finance initiative?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on securing this important debate on safety at level crossings in north Staffordshire. I also thank him for his courtesy in giving me notice of some of the detailed matters that he wanted to raise. However, I must chide him for his unreasonable complaint about the failure of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reply to him. The hon. Gentleman wrote only nine days ago, on 28 February, as part of what is evidently a late flurry of activity on his part. I assure him that he will receive his reply shortly.
Her Majesty's railway inspectorate gives detailed guidance on safety provision at level crossings, which determines the standard of crossings in relation to the type of railway operation. The Level Crossings Regulations 1997 are an order-making procedure enabling level crossings to be upgraded. In general, orders would be confirmed under delegated powers by the railway inspectorate. However, if the orders were subject to objection, they could be referred to my Department and the Secretary of State for decision. In other words, the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in such matters. Hon. Members will therefore
The west coast main line, which passes through Staffordshire, is one of the country's main rail arteries, linking London with the west midlands, Merseyside, Manchester, north Wales and Glasgow. The crossings that concern the hon. Gentleman are on the north Staffordshire line. Renewal and upgrading of the west coast main line is probably the largest, and certainly one of the most complex, investments in railway infrastructure in the world. The current estimate of the total cost of the project is £5.8 billion, which will enable Virgin Trains to run more, faster trains on the fast lines and make enhancements to meet the Strategic Rail Authority's requirement for additional capacity for local and freight services on the slow lines. Faster trains create a requirement to upgrade level crossings to ensure safe operation. Replacing the level crossing with a bridge, upgrading from a half barrier to a full barrier or, in some cases, closing the crossing and diverting the road can achieve that.
The six crossings on the north Staffordshire line between Colwich junction and Stoke-on-Trent especially concern the hon. Gentleman. Railtrack has identified level crossings on this section of the west coast main line as being unsuitable for anticipated increases in train speeds and has developed proposals to respond to that. It has discussed its proposals with the county council, the railway inspectorate and other public bodies, and it has issued a press notice indicating its intentions at each crossing.
I propose to discuss in turn each crossing that concerns the hon. Gentleman. First, Hixon is the most southerly of the level crossings, and provides the most direct route between the villages of Hixon and Stafford. The crossing takes the form of an automatic half-barrier. Railtrack has decided to replace the crossing with a bridge, and planning permission has already been obtained.
Secondly, the Aston-by-Stone level crossing is on the B5027, on the edge of Stone. The residents of approximately 700 houses must use that crossing to reach Stone. It is an automatic half-barrier crossing, unprotected by signals on the railway line or closed circuit television.
Mr. Cash : It is clear that the hon. Gentleman is relying, to a certain extent, on the same briefing paper that I used; I can hear it being repeated. We do not need to cover all my points again, but I would like to know what will be done about funding. That is the crucial element. I am not arguing for the issue to be dealt with according to the county council's suggestions, but we need a solution, and that will entail money, whether it is for a bridge, a tunnel or whatever.
If the hon. Gentleman will indulge me, I will return to the subject of the Aston-by-Stone level crossing. For operational reasons, that type of crossing is effectively closed to traffic for two minutes, compared with 40 seconds for the existing half-barrier crossing. The extended closure time for the full-barrier crossing would cause delays to road traffic. That is of great concern to local residents, who consider that a bridge should be provided.
The county council has conducted a feasibility study for a bridge, which is estimated to cost £3.5 million. Railtrack concluded that that cost was excessive. It subsequently decided that, to minimise delays to road traffic, it would not increase the line speed through the crossing, thereby maintaining safety without inconveniencing local residents.
Thirdly, the Meaford full-barrier crossing is in the centre of Stone. The county council and Railtrack agree that a bridge would be impractical there. Railtrack plans to improve the safety of the crossing by adding CCTV, which will be linked to the signal box. It is also considering whether the introduction of new traffic management systems in the vicinity of the crossing will improve safety further.
Fourthly, the Church lane crossing affects the only access point to approximately 100 houses on the edge of Stone. The current CCTV system has proved unreliable, and residents have expressed concerns about being cut off from their homes at some times. Railtrack is committed to replacing existing equipment to improve reliability without increasing the time in which the barriers are in operation.
Fifthly, the next crossing, adjacent to Barlaston station, is manually controlled. Railtrack has considered a bridge option at a cost of £2.5 million, but has announced its decision to upgrade to a CCTV system.
Mr. Hill : The hon. Gentleman signalled in advance his intention to talk about Blythe bridge. I am glad to be able to respond by saying that I am aware of the two incidents that occurred at Newtons level crossing at Blythe bridge, which has a user-operated level crossing with a telephone. In two separate incidents on 17 June and 9 July 1998, trains struck stray cows on the line. A further incident occurred on 27 October 1998 at Blythe bridge when a car obstructed the line. However, Her Majesty's railway inspectorate considered that none of those incidents was worthy of investigation. Therefore, I do not expect Railtrack to take any action.
The hon. Gentleman has raised important issues concerning the possibility of special grant through the PFI, but I have said that we are considering bridges and alternatives to level crossings. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that this part of Staffordshire has an unusually large number of level crossings, although I was surprised to learn the extent of the problem. We are discussing significant sums of money, and there are limits in the PFI structure on borrowing powers by local authorities. In December, the Government announced generous arrangements that more than double local transport planned provision for local authorities, and we cannot move rapidly to commitments on such significant expenditure.
Mr. Cash : I hear what the Minister is saying and I am encouraged by his positive approach and recognition of the problem, which would have to be accompanied by resources if a result were to be achieved. However, I must remind him that capital expenditure per head in Staffordshire is the lowest in the country at £1.39, and that is the Minister's figure, given in reply to a question only a few days ago. That is phenomenal, and is clearly connected with the lack of provision that I am seeking to redress.
Mr. Hill : Allocation of resources is, as the hon. Gentleman implied, a matter for local highways authorities. However, in general terms, the Government believe Staffordshire to be an enterprising and successful local transport authority, which makes its own judgment on whether it puts funding into integrated public transport schemes or road maintenance. We have more than doubled the funding available for road maintenance and investment under local transport plans, and I expect to see important consequential increases in investment in roads in Staffordshire.
To sum up, the Government are committed to the development of an efficient, customer-friendly and safe national railway network. The upgrade of the west coast main line is a key part of that overall strategy. The core investment programme to modernise the infrastructure of the west coast main line, including renewal of track, signalling, electricity supply and structures is the basis for the modernisation plans. Work is already under way to bring about the necessary improvements. Major work at Birmingham and Euston has recently been undertaken, and approximately 30 per cent. of the work has been completed at a cost of £800 million.
On detailed provision for specific level crossings, I must again make it clear that this is initially a matter for Railtrack and Her Majesty's railway inspectorate in discussion with local interests. However, legislation on level crossings requires the Secretary of State to determine orders when there are substantial objections.
Her Majesty's railway inspectorate has made a submission to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on level crossings, and my officials are considering the information prior to advising Ministers on that important issue. I have already said that while those submissions are under consideration, and prior to a decision by the Secretary of State, I am unable to offer any views on the merits of any of the alternatives in specific cases. However, I confirm the undertaking already given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman on the possible PFI arrangement for the crossings. Meanwhile, I remain grateful to him for his contribution to this debate and deepening the Government's understanding of the issues.